Municipal Government

VW Rejects UAW: Organizing in the South Still Tough

February 18, 2014
By Neal Tepel, Publisher LaborPress Editorial

New York, NY – The rejection of the United Auto Workers by employees at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tennessee factory is a major defeat for the U.S. labor movement. There is no way around that. The 712-626 no vote, announced Feb. 14, came at a plant where the UAW said a majority of workers had signed cards indicating they wanted to join.


It came at a company that was willing to accept unionization in order to set up the “works council” system of labor-management cooperation that it has at all its factories in the world outside the U.S. and China—unlike Nissan, which insists that workers at its Mississippi plant don’t need a “third party” to represent them.

More important in the long run, a UAW victory would have been its first at the foreign-owned factories that now account for about 30% of the U.S. auto market, and it would have also been the union’s first major success in the South, long the most anti-union region of the country. Attempts to organize textile workers in the Piedmont were brutally crushed in the Depression, and all 11 Southern states have “right to work” laws banning the union shop, all except Louisiana’s enacted before 1955.

Only 11.3% of U.S. workers are union members. However in the South, only Alabama’s 10.7% even comes close to that many, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Tennessee ranks second at 6.1%, and Arkansas, Mississippi, and the Carolinas are all below 4%, the lowest in the nation.

One of the arguments for “card check” is that elections give management a chance to wage an anti-union propaganda campaign and threaten to move jobs somewhere else. In Chattanooga, that campaign came from outside forces. Sen. Bob Corker claimed that Volkswagen would expand the plant and build a new SUV if workers voted no—a claim the company immediately denied. Gov. Bill Haslam said a pro-union vote would discourage other manufacturers from setting up in Tennessee. State Sen. Bo Watson threatened that the state would cut off tax
breaks for the plant if workers organized.

Far-right anti-labor groups, including an Americans for Tax Reform front and the National Right to Work Committee, chimed in, putting up billboards accusing the UAW of ruining Detroit and claiming that organizers wearing black UAW T-shirts in the plants was “a clear effort to intimidate the employees.”

Prior to the vote the right wing propaganda machine went to work linking unions with those issues sensitive to Southerners.

The UAW might challenge the election because of “outside interference” by Corker and others, and VW is still considering ways to establish a works council. But the results make it much less likely that the union’s organizing campaigns will succeed at Nissan’s plant in Mississippi, Mercedes-Benz’s in Alabama, Kia’s in Georgia, or BMW’s in South Carolina.

February 18, 2014

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